Fans of the Good Place have probably already read this book or have it on their TBR, so instead, I’m going to focus this review on folks who have not watched, or watched but didn’t enjoy (which I am told is a real population of people that exist) the Good Place.
Ethics are hard. Teaching ethics is also hard, for a great number of reasons. Chief among them is that a) the subject matter is impossible to nail down and b) each person’s approach to it is so steeped in usually unexplored biases that by the time a learner is engaging with the material they have to unpack not only the ethical concepts someone is playing with, but also their biases, the biases of the teacher instructing them, and their own. Also, we apparently need to define “thing” first??
Not only does Schur handle these impossibilities gracefully, and does so while trying to answer broader questions of why we should even care about ethics and what might the underlying principles that drive our thinking be, but manages to do so while making you laugh.
Sure, his biases are in here. Some of them are appalling, including his love of sports, which is objectively annoying and pointless. But he will win you back by boiling down a thousand years of ethical discourse into four, easy to remember, useful questions to help you tackle any moral quandary and the basic tools to answer those questions. Also his hatred of pineapple on pizza and Ayn Rand.
Indeed, it is almost impossible to read a text on ethics without having some major disagreement with the author, even when they are, as Schur is doing here, trying to really just explain someone else’s theory. That, I would argue, in and of itself demonstrates how effectively he is covering the material, because even in this very basic primer, he’s given you enough to consider alternative interpretations.
Here’s an example. Someone comes to your home and asks you where your sibling is because they’re going to kill them. If you follow Kant, Schur argues, one universal maxim that would likely be applicable here is something like “always tell the truth” or some variation on that. That means that even though you obviously don’t want to help this person kill your sibling, if you know the answer, you are bound to give it. He uses this as an example of the limits of Kant’s theory, arguing that it eliminates space for nuance and causes absurd results. I don’t disagree. But I also think that in this case you could just as easily follow the truth-telling universal maxim here by telling the would-be murderer to fuck off and that you don’t want to tell them, so you won’t. It’s a flawed analogy because it conflates the idea of a universal maxim like “you should always tell the truth because if everyone lied our society would collapse” with the idea of a universal maxim like “you should always answer every question put before you, in full, because if everyone didn’t do that…?” I doubt there would be much appetite for a universal maxim like that.
So if you care about being a good person (despite disliking the Good Place??), and feel like to exist as a person in this world makes even that fairly low-bar goal absolutely impossible, this book might give you a sort of framework for engaging with ethics in your day to day life that feels doable.
After that, the world is your oyster.
Oh, and the audiobook is fabulous. Definitely get the audio.